LIFE IN
ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND

This four-book series looks at life in England under the rule of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). The books are illustrated in full color with reproductions of period artwork. Each volume makes use of quotations from primary sources and offers sidebars on special topics, as well as a glossary, list of books for further reading, list of recommended Web sites, and bibliography.

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Reviews

*"This series takes a comprehensive look at life during Elizabeth's reign. Each title begins with a quote from the era, contains primary source documents, present-day photographs of items, and paintings. The primary source excerpts and biographic reviews introduce readers to language and ideas of the times. The author outlines what life was like for the British people including hardships, celebrations, the way things worked (from poor to rich), entertainment, and education. She points out the gender roles of the era and the hypocrisy of a country led by a strong female monarch yet grossly mistreating the female population as a whole. The author also discusses the governmental set up, the way the church worked, and Elizabeth's role in orchestrating the country's overwhelming success. For teachers addressing this time period, this book provides valuable insight that could be utilized in classroom discussion or research regardless of grade or interest level.... Highly Recommended." [starred review]

--Library Media Connection, March 2008

"These books concentrate on different aspects of life in Elizabethan England, using some common information about eating, sleeping, sanitation, and roles of men and women that would clarify many questions in that particular title. Good-quality, full-color reproductions help readers envision the people's homes, clothing, and lifestyles. The attractive, open format and the engaging presentation of the subject matter, combined with documented primary-source quotations and sidebars that include recipes, poetry, plays, and additional information, will appeal to both researchers and those who are just interested in learning more about this period."

--School Library Journal, March 2008

 

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Excerpts

The Queen's Progress

With as many as 1500 people in residence at any given time, each royal palace could only be occupied for a month or two. At that point the latrines and other facilities would be filthy and the provisions from the surrounding area used up, so Elizabeth, her court, and the household would move on to another palace. Most summers, too, the queen went "on progress," visiting various nobles and other prominent subjects on their home estates. This gave her an opportunity to move among her people in the cities and countryside, and provided more time for the cleaning and resupplying of her palaces. Going on progress also saved her money, since those she visited were expected to feed, house, and entertain her and all the courtiers that traveled with her.

Elizabeth's most famous progress was that of 1575, which included her visit to Kenilworth Castle. The Earl of Leicester was her host there, and during her ten-day stay he did everything in his power to impress and delight her. She was greeted by poetic speeches, musicians, gentlemen and ladies dressed as characters from the legends of King Arthur, cannon salutes, and fireworks. After she came to her rooms, though, she remarked to Leicester that she had no view there of the castle's beautiful formal garden; during the night he had workmen lay out an identical garden beneath her windows. On the following days there were banquets, theatrical performances, dances, hunts, more fireworks, and even a country wedding.

Leicester had hired playwright George Gascoigne to compose all the entertainments; one of these was a water pageant. It featured two large models on the lake, one of a mermaid and the other of a dolphin--inside of which musicians and a singer were concealed. The most important festivity was planned for the last night: an elaborately costumed masque in which Juno, the ancient Roman goddess of marriage, would convince a virtuous maiden named "Zabeta" to marry. This was Leicester's way of suggesting that Elizabeth, too, should get married--and to him. Unfortunately, the masque was rained out. Elizabeth departed the next day as planned, hardly hearing the hastily written farewell poem that Gascoigne declaimed as he ran alongside her horse.

--Life in Elizabethan England: Elizabeth and Her Court

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Water and Waste

People who had no access to a well got their water from a public fountain or from water carriers who sold water door to door; the water could be stored in barrels to be used as needed. Nearly all towns were built by a river, which was usually the source of the water piped to fountains and sold by the watermen; many city dwellers fetched water from the river or its conduits themselves. Some wealthy people had water piped right into their homes. River water wasn't very clean, though, because sewage and other kinds of waste were routinely dumped into it.

Trash disposal was a problem; in London each ward had officials called scavengers who were supposed to make sure the streets stayed clean, but it's hard to know how they did it. Some kinds of garbage would be fed to pigs or would be eaten by dogs and other animals. Kitchen waste could often be recycled--fireplace ashes and animal fat were used to make soap, and vegetable matter could be turned into compost to enrich garden soil. On the whole, people threw away a lot less than most Americans do today and recycled as much as possible. For example, there were many shops that sold used clothes. And ragmen bought worn-out clothing and cloth scraps, which they could resell to paper makers.

People tried to stay as clean as they could. Because it was so difficult to get and heat a large amount of water, most rarely took a bath, but they used a washbasin and jug to cleanse their hands and face every morning. They also washed hands before each meal and after going to the bathroom. If they didn't have an outhouse in the yard or an indoor latrine (often called a jakes), they could use a chamber pot or a closestool (basically a box with a hole in the top and a chamber pot inside; wealthy people's closestools had padded seats). Instead of toilet paper, small pieces of cloth were used--and they were washed out and reused many times.

--Life in Elizabethan England: The City

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Sports and Pastimes

Sports were very popular; then as now, they were favorite activities on Sunday afternoons and holidays. The Elizabethans even had a form of football--like soccer, but much rougher and with larger teams. It was typically played in the streets and could involve all the men of the village. Another favorite men's sport was bandyball, which was very similar to modern field hockey. An ancestor of baseball and cricket called stoolball was played by both men and women.

Other sports or active games included archery, footraces, variants of tag, swimming, wrestling, and throwing heavy stones to see who could hurl them the farthest. Country people also enjoyed fishing and hunting--and if they were successful, they'd be able to bring home protein-rich food for the family. It was important, though, only to hunt where you were allowed--poaching game from someone else's land was a serious offense.

Another much-loved recreation was dancing, generally in groups rather than couples. Typically everyone held hands and danced in a circle or in a long line; some dances involved leaping or stomping. Music was provided by bagpipes or by pipe and tabor (a pennywhistle-like instrument and small drum, played at the same time by one person). People liked to sing, too, especially rounds--which the Elizabethans called "catches"--and ballads. A ballad was a long rhyming song that told a story. Sometimes it was a tale about people from history or legend, such as King Arthur or Robin Hood. Other ballads told love stories or funny stories or stories about fairies. Still others related or commented on current events--everything from sensational murders to the deeds of English soldiers fighting in the war against Spain....

Storytelling was a favorite way to pass the evenings, especially in the winter. Then people sat indoors doing knitting, spinning, basket making, tool mending, and similar tasks, and could easily entertain one another with stories as they worked. Shakespeare refers to this often in his plays, as in these lines from Richard II:

In winter's tedious nights, sit by the fire
With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales
Of woeful ages long ago betid.

Shakespeare in fact titled one of his later plays The Winter's Tale, and in it a character remarks on the type of story people most enjoyed during this season: "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one / Of sprites and goblins."

--Life in Elizabethan England: The Countryside

Biblical Women

In Catholic Europe, the most important of all the saints was Mary, the mother of Jesus. English Protestants downplayed Mary's role, but she was still held in great honor, as were several other biblical women. In the New Testament, there were Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene, the first person to see Jesus after he rose from the dead and to believe in the Resurrection. Old Testament women particularly esteemed by Elizabethans included Sarah, the wife of Abraham (the founder of the Hebrew people); Deborah, a judge and prophet who led the ancient Israelites; Judith, who saved an Israelite city by beheading an invading general; and Esther, a Jewish queen whose cleverness kept her people from being massacred. These last three particularly inspired Queen Elizabeth, giving her and her people role models for strong female leadership. Elizabeth drew on that inspiration in this prayer she wrote early in her reign:

Thou hast done me so special and so rare a mercy that, being a woman by my nature weak, timid, and delicate, as are all women, Thou hast caused me to be vigorous, brave, and strong . . . persist, in giving me strength so that I, like another Deborah, like another Judith, like another Esther, may free Thy people.

--Life in Elizabethan England: The Church

[quotation from Jane Dunn, Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens (New York: Knopf, 2004), p. 109]

 

Extras

As a special feature, this Web page offers some bonus material for readers who would like to add a little more to their Elizabethan experience.

The Irish Troubles

England first began to exercise power in Ireland during the twelfth century, but gradually English influence died out on most of the island. Henry VIII, however, decided to bring all of Ireland fully under his control. Elizabeth continued her father's policy of governing Ireland as an English colony, and many prominent Elizabethans held offices and estates in Ireland, including Sir Henry Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, and the poet Edmund Spenser.
Ireland had its own language and customs, few towns and villages of the sort the English were used to, and a number of rival clans that were often at war with one another. To most people in England, the Irish seemed backward and barbaric. The gulf between the two nationalities grew even wider during Elizabeth's reign, since most of the Irish were Catholic. Many Irish felt that they were not only losing their political freedom, but would lose their religious freedom as well.

Elizabeth wished to treat Ireland with a mild hand, gradually strengthening English law and government there while treating the Irish lords as loyal subjects. She even hoped to learn the Irish language herself, and wanted the Bible to be translated into Irish. But many of the English settlers and soldiers in Ireland aggressively seized land and mistreated the people, ignoring laws and killing local leaders. This violence and the other threats to the Irish way of life provoked several uprisings. In some of them the Irish received help from the Spanish, making Elizabeth and her councillors even more determined to control Ireland so that no one else could use it as a base to attack England.

The last years of Elizabeth's reign saw the Nine Years War, in which the powerful northern Irish lord Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, united much of the island to drive out the English. Tyrone almost succeeded; thousands of English soldiers died fighting against his forces. The struggle was a constant worry to Elizabeth, she had to sell jewels and take out loans to pay the army, and its commander, her one-time favorite the Earl of Essex, disobeyed her orders at every turn. Yet England kept its hold, while much of Ireland was left devastated. Relations between the two countries would only become worse under Elizabeth's successors, with the effects still being felt today.

What's in a Name?

Many people in English-speaking countries have last names that come from the crafts and trades their ancestors worked at. A lot of these names go back to the sixteenth century or even earlier. Here are some occupation surnames that also show up in the names of Elizabethan London's livery companies:

Baker
Barber (Elizabethan barbers were also dentists and surgeons)
Bowyer (someone who made bows)
Carpenter
Chandler (someone who made candles)
Cook
Cooper (someone who made barrels)
Currier (someone who tanned and treated leather)
Cutler (someone who made knives)
Draper (someone who sold cloth and ready-made clothing)
Dyer (someone who dyed cloth)
Fletcher (someone who made arrows)
Glover (someone who made gloves)
Joiner (someone who made wooden furniture)
Mercer (someone who dealt in expensive, often imported, fabrics)
Saddler (someone who made saddles)
Salter (someone who made salted meat and fish)
Skinner (someone who prepared and/or sold furs)
Taylor (a tailor)
Tyler (a tiler--someone who made or installed tiles)
Weaver

Advice for Maidservants

Isabella Whitney wrote a verse letter to two of her sisters who were working as servants in London. She advised them to work efficiently, to be discreet and modest, to refrain from gossip, not to laugh too much or seem too solemn, and not to lose their tempers. Whitney had almost certainly worked as a servant herself, so she was giving her sisters the benefits of her own experience. The last stanza of the letter shows what a long day maidservants worked, since they had duties even after everyone else was settled down for the night:

Your Masters gone to Bed,
your Mistresses at rest.
Their Daughters all who haste about
to get themselves undressed.
See that their Plate be safe,
and that no Spoon do lack,
See Doors and Windows bolted fast
for fear of any wrack.
Then help if need there be,
to do some household thing:
If not to bed, referring you,
unto the heavenly King.
Forgetting not to pray
as I before you taught,
And giving thanks for all that he
hath ever for you wrought.
Good Sisters when you pray,
let me remembered be:
So will I you, and thus I cease,
till I yourselves do see.


[quotation from "An order prescribed, by IS. W. to two of her younger Sisters serving in London," available online at https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/html/1807/4350/poem2949.html]

Elizabethan Reading Habits

Elizabethans enjoyed all kinds of literature, and did not draw a sharp line between fiction and nonfiction. They read for both education and entertainment, delighting in novelties and excitement, whether these occurred in stories of daring travelers, the lives of kings, or accounts of Christian martyrs. London's printers satisfied nearly every taste and every budget, producing finely bound books for the wealthy and cheap pamphlets and ballads for those on modest budgets.

The Elizabethans read religion, history, science, and even what we might call advice or self-help books. They liked accounts of sailors and pirates and faraway places, such as Sir Walter Raleigh's The Discovery of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana, with a Relation of the Great, Golden City of Manoa (which the spanyards call El Dorado). In a new translation of the ancient Roman author Pliny, they could have read that lions were noble and merciful and would "sooner assail men than women and never young children unless it be for great famine" and that dolphins loved "young children and the sound of instruments." Then there was Edward Topsell's The History of Serpents, all about dragons--according to which, children in Macedonia had pet dragons, "riding upon them and pinching them as they would dogs without any harm and sleeping with them in their beds." Also popular were collections of short humorous stories, romances, and tales of knights and ladies, magic and adventure; many of these stories were told in poetic form. Everyone seems to have loved poetry, which ranged from the most refined courtly poems to ballads about everything from doomed love affairs to the deeds of highway robbers to complaints about competition from foreign craftsmen.


[quotations from Myra Weatherly, ed., Living in Elizabethan England (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2004), pp. 117 and 118.]

News-Bulletin Balladry

A broadside ballad could be an inexpensive and appealing way to get information out to the common people. Here, for example, are excerpts from a ballad about Queen Elizabeth's 1588 visit to the troops who assembled to defend England from a threatened invasion by Spain. It was written and published by Thomas Deloney only a day after the events it describes.

Then came the Queen on prancing steed attired like an Angel bright,
And eight brave footmen at her feet, whose jerkins were most rich in sight.
Her Ladies, likewise of great honor, most sumptuously did wait upon her,
With pearls and diamonds brave adorned, and in costly cauls of gold.
Her Guard in scarlet then ride after, with bows and arrows stout and bold....

At length her grace most royally received was and brought again
Where she might see most loyally this noble host and warlike train,
How they came marching all together, like a wood in winter's weather.
With the strokes of drummers sounding and with trampling horses then,
The earth and air did sound like thunder to the ears of every man.

The warlike Army then stood still, and drummers left their dubbing sound,
Because it was our Prince's will, to ride about the Army round.
Her Ladies she did leave behind her, and her Guard which still did mind her.
The Lord general and Lord marshal did conduct her to each place:
The pikes, the colors, and the lances, at her approach fell down apace.

And then bespake our noble Queen, "My loving friends and countrymen:
I hope this day the worst is seen that in our wars ye shall sustain.
But if our enemies do assail you, never let your stomachs fail you.
For in the midst of all your troop, we ourselves will be in place:
To be your joy, your guide and comfort, even before your enemies' face."


[quotation from Thomas Deloney, "The Queenes visiting of the Campe at Tilsburie with her entertainment there," available online at http://www.lukehistory.com/ballads/tilsbury.html (spelling and punctuation modernized)]

Epitaph for a Beloved Husband

Wealthy and important people were often buried in tombs inside a church or cathedral. The tomb might be marked by a plaque, a carved image of the dead person, or both. Lady Elizabeth Russell composed this poem and had it engraved in marble on her husband's tomb in Westminster Abbey:

How was I startled at the cruel feast,
By death's rude hands in horrid manner drest;
Such grief as sure no hapless woman knew,
When thy pale image lay before my view....
Alike the beauteous face, the comely air,
The tongue persuasive, and the actions fair,
Decay: so learning too in time shall waste:
But faith, chaste lovely faith, shall ever last....

[quotation from Paul Hentzner, Itinerarium Angliae, available online at http://www.philological.bham.ac.uk/hentzner/]

excerpts copyright © 2008 by Marshall Cavendish Benchmark
extras copyright © 2007 by Kathryn Hinds

Web site copyright © 2006-2011 by Kathryn Hinds